A few hours after President Vladimir Putin signed a decree granting Gérard Depardieu Russian citizenship it was clear the French actor would have little difficulty making new friends in his adopted homeland.
Offers of hospitality came flooding in from across Russia.
The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is accused of widespread human rights abuses, announced that Depardieu could have his pick of any piece of land in his republic. And one of Russia’s most famous celebrities, the garrulous TV presenter Tina Kandelaki, said Depardieu was welcome to stay in her flat. “Lets not divide up Depardieu,” she wrote on Twitter. “Simply give him to me.”
Though he may have numerous social invitations, Depardieu, who has said he wants to renounce his French citizenship because of the government’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, is unlikely to find others in a similar situation to himself. It is rare for foreigners to seek Russian citizenship and rarer still for it to be granted. Depardieu is an exception, to be counted alongside the likes of the notorious spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess in the 1950s, Lee Harvey Oswald, and, more recently, the Japanese figure skater Yuko Kavaguti, who wanted to compete in the 2010 Olympics with her Russian partner.
Driven by political and economic instability at home, the number of Russians seeking citizenship in Israel, western Europe or the United States has always been far higher.
Depardieu’s native France – which received a flood of immigrants from Russia in the 1920s and after the fall of communism in the 1990s – granted more than 5,000 citizenship requests from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in 2010.
Even Russia’s business and political elite contains figures with dual nationalities. The oil trading billionaire Gennady Timchenko, who is rumoured to have close ties to Putin, has both Finnish and Russian citizenship.
Some members of the expatriate community living in Russia have become Russian citizens for marriage or business reasons, but it is a very rare occurrence, said Tatyana Bondrayevna, director of the Visa Delight migration agency.
For those foreigners who go through the ordinary channels and do not have Depardieu’s special relationship with top officials such as Putin and Kadyrov, she added, the process of obtaining Russian citizenship takes at least two and a half years to complete.
Many would never even countenance it. “Although it’s something that I’ve certainly thought about, it’s almost definite that I won’t do it,” said Luc Jones, a British citizen who has worked as an executive recruiter in Moscow for over a decade.
“If you enter Russia, your foreign passport is your protection … but if you have Russian citizenship you immediately lose this protection,” he added.
Depardieu, who confirmed that he had officially requested a Russian passport late on Thursday in a statement to Russian TV’s Channel One, said he loved Russia and would begin to learn the language. The actor, who has worked on several Russian films including a new portrayal of the monk Grigory Rasputin, makes frequent appearances on the local film festival circuit.
“I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history, your writers … your culture and your way of thinking,” he said. “Russia is a country of great democracy.”
To be eligible for Russia’s 13% flat rate income tax, however, Depardieu would have to be resident in the country for at least six months of every year. But he was non-committal about whether he would move permanently to his new homeland.
“It’s good to live in Russia. Though not necessarily in Moscow, which is too big a megapolis for me … I prefer the countryside.”
Depardieu has also bought a property in Belgium and is reportedly seeking residency in the country, but Jacques Dallemagne, who heads the Belgian parliamentary body that approves citizenship requests, warned that Depardieu’s Russian passport could complicate any application.
“One does not collect nationalities,” he said.